DETROIT — You just never know how a player will react when the pressure is on, when the stakes are highest if they’ve never been there.
The Tigers found something out about Anibal Sanchez (4-6) Tuesday night.
They already knew that the Chicago White Sox (82-72) had lost to the Cleveland Indians earlier in the day and that they had a chance to tie them for first place in the Central Division. All they needed was to beat the always-game-in-August-and-September Kansas City Royals.
They also knew that Sanchez had pitched a no-hitter in his career.
What they didn’t know was whether Sanchez was ready for playoff baseball.
After Sanchez threw a complete-game, 2-0 shutout while striking out 10 Royals, the Tigers (82-72) have their answer: Sanchez is up for the challenge.
“You don’t throw a no-hitter in the big leagues without good stuff,” catcher Gerald Laird said. “He’s been a winning pitcher, he’s won tons of games in the big leagues, he’s been a big success for the Florida Marlins. We knew what we were getting when we got him over here. This is what we thought we were getting. I’m just glad he’s starting to hit his stride right now.”
Royals manager Ned Yost was impressed with Sanchez’s performance.
“We looked up and he had only thrown five balls in three innings,” Yost said. “We made a bunch of one-pitch outs in the second time through the order, but we couldn’t center anything. He was too tough.”
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Sanchez is the third pitcher since 1969 to put his team in first place with a 10-strikeout shutout on Sept. 1 or later. The others were Steve Carlton in 1982 and Scott McGregor in 1981, before Sanchez was born.
While the Tigers haven’t made the playoffs yet, as they’ve been chasing the White Sox down the stretch, Sanchez knew these games were as meaningful as playoff games.
Thanks to Sanchez’s heroics, the Tigers and White Sox are now tied in the division with eight games to go in the regular season.
“I came out strong, every pitch, and like I say, try to be aggressive all the time,” Sanchez said. “I don’t want to miss, I don’t want to like (be) leaving any pitch for the hitter. I don’t want to give any chance, and especially (Tuesday).
“It an important game, and we are at the end of season, we’re really close with the race in the AL Central, so I’m going to keep working hard.”
Like many of the Tigers, Sanchez tends to be more quiet and unassuming. If you didn’t know him, you might not realize how competitive he is.
That fire showed in the sixth inning when Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon reached via base hit and walk, respectively, bringing up Billy Butler with two out and the Tigers only leading, 2-0.
Sanchez threw his curveball, slider, sinker and finally another slider, getting Butler to strike out to end the inning. Sanchez reacted by pumping his fist.
“Yeah, I know, because that guy is pretty good hitter,” Sanchez said. “This guy he’s with one shot can put the game ahead for them. That strike him out I think the key for the game.”
Laird said he had complete faith in Sanchez that he could get Butler in that situation, especially the way he was pitching Tuesday.
“Butler’s been a thorn in our side for a while,” Laird said. “We got ahead of him and I figured if we could get a good breaking ball down in the dirt, we could get him to swing over the top of it. So I called and he went with it, and he executed it.
“When you can get their best hitter out with men on base, if he hits a double right there, it may change the game.”
Pitching like this, Sanchez could be a game-changer for the Tigers if they make the playoffs. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister all going strong, the Tigers could opt to make Sanchez the fourth starter and place Rick Porcello in the bullpen.
“It’s good, because I know the team is going to trust me when I’m on the mound,” Sanchez said. “That’s just my couple months with the team, and I just try to show my best so they trust me, especially when we make the playoff.”
In his last 10 starts, including Tuesday, Sanchez has a 3.62 ERA. He’s walked only 11 while striking out 50 in 62 1/3 innings.
Tuesday was Sanchez’s first complete game of the season and the seventh of his career. It was also his fifth career shutout and fourth career game with 10 or more strikeouts.
“It was just fun for me,” Laird said. “It seemed like I was just putting fingers down and he was just making pitches. It just goes to show you how much command he’s got. That 3-2 pitch in the ninth to (Alex) Gordon, he swung through it. You almost don’t know what to look for when you face him. He’s got that 95 mile-per-hour fastball, too. It was all about him.
“He did a heck of a job and he knew what was at stake. He came out and performed.”